An American Traitor

Benedict ArnoldSay the name “Benedict Arnold” to an American, and it probably won’t conjure up any positive images.  Benedict Arnold has become to Americans what the name Judas has historically meant to the rest of Western civilization.  It’s a name synonymous with treachery and deceit.  It’s the reason why, in the 1994 film The Little Rascals, the worst insult Alfalfa can think to throw at Spanky is to call him a “Benedict Arnold.”  (What can I say, I have three kids).

Benedict Arnold didn’t start out a traitor though.  In fact, he was actually an American hero.  During the American Revolution, he was with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga.  He served with distinction in fighting the British in Canada, and then later at the Battles of Saratoga, where he was severely wounded in the leg.  He was respected by George Washington, and admired by many in the Continental Army.

But a series of events transpired that pushed him into treachery.  For one, he was transferred to Philadelphia, where he met a British loyalist named Peggy Shippen, whom he eventually married.  He was also passed over several times for promotions, which rankled him.  He faced a court martial for earlier conduct, he was investigated by Congress for a failure to properly document expenditures during his time in Canada, and he also began to express serious doubts about the ability of the Americans to prevail over the British.  All of this led to him beginning a secret correspondence with John Andre, the head of British intelligence and the Adjutant General of the British Army.

Arnold at first gave Andre things like troop movements, locations of supply depots and the like.  But soon, when he was promoted to commanding officer of the garrison at West Point, he began discussing a bigger prize with Andre: West Point itself.  A British capture of West Point would have effectively cut New England off from the rest of the colonies, dealing a crippling blow to the Americans.

On September 21, 1780, in a clandestine meeting with Arnold behind American lines, John AndreAndre was given some papers, in Arnold’s own hand, that included maps of the fort’s layout and instructions on how to take the fort.  By coincidence, an American officer opened fire on the ship Andre had traveled in, forcing it to move down the Hudson River, leaving Andre to try to return to his own side without the aid of the ship.  Andre dressed in civilian clothes, stuffed the papers in his stocking, and took off back to the British lines.  He was stopped by three men, whom he tried to bribe.  They instead turned him over to their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson.  In spite of the evidence pointing directly at Arnold, Jameson at first did not believe that Arnold could be a spy, and sent word of Andre’s capture to his commanding officer–who happened to be Benedict Arnold.  It was only when Jameson conferred with Benjamin Tallmadge, the head of American intelligence, that suspicions began to be aroused. By this time, however, it was too late.

Arnold, receiving word of Andre’s capture, knew that the game was up.  He got his horse and fled for the safety of the British.  Washington sent men to arrest Arnold, but by the time they were sent out, Arnold had escaped.  Andre, for his part in the plot, was subsequently hanged.  Arnold spent the rest of the war fighting for the British, and when they were defeated, he was exiled to England.  He never received full payment for his services to the British, since the planned capture of West Point was never executed.  He spent the rest of his life despised by Americans and distrusted by British.  He paid dearly for his betrayal, never gaining the respect he felt he deserved, being loathed or mistrusted by many who knew him.  It is said that on his deathbed, he asked to put on his Continental uniform one last time, and said “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”

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Monday Book Review: Coolidge

Coolidge Book CoverI’m not usually given to just plain biographies.  Not that I don’t enjoy them, but typically my historical reading usually centers around events or places, rarely just individual people.  That said, I did enjoy my reading of Amity Shlaes biography of Calvin Coolidge, entitled simply Coolidge.  I’ve found that for some books, I’m able to get more read if I listen to them on Audible, and that was the case here.  So my review is from listening to the book in that format.

Shlaes is a fine writer, and I enjoy her work.  I’ve read articles she’s written, as well as her previous book The Forgotten Man, covering the history of the Great Depression.  She’s very thorough, and brings to light things that I hadn’t thought about before.  Her mention of Coolidge in The Forgotten Man is one of the things that sparked my interest in her biography of the former president.  While I do not believe Coolidge, the book, is nearly as good as The Forgotten Man, it is certainly worth your time if you don’t know much about Calvin Coolidge.  Shlaes does a great job covering his early life, including what shaped the views that would later inform his political career, and then explores his rise to the nation’s highest office.

Coolidge’s views were shaped heavily by his time spent at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and Shlaes spends quite a few pages discussing the friendships he formed there as well as the professors that seemed to influence him.  She quotes liberally from letters he wrote to his father as well as various friends that discuss the formulation of his views and his philosophies.  She also spends a good deal of time on the Boston Police Strike in 1919, when Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, which was the event that vaulted him into the national spotlight.  She contrasts him with the much more bombastic (and corrupt) Warren G. Harding, his predecessor to the presidency, although if you are unfamiliar with the corruption of the Harding administration and the reasons for Coolidge’s ascendancy in the wake of Harding’s death, the information seems to run a bit thin.  Coolidge was not involved in all this, and Shlaes gives only the briefest of details about these national scandals.

And that is one of my two biggest complaints about Coolidge, the biography.  The first, that many of the world and national events are skimmed over, so that it was not always easy to tell how some events were shaping Coolidge’s views, as well as his career.  World War 1, for instance, is not covered in any great detail, and Coolidge’s thoughts and reactions to it all, including the U.S.’s role, is not discussed in what I thought was sufficient length.  It would have been interesting to see a deeper examination of Coolidge’s thoughts on Wilson’s foreign policy, and while the book does talk about Harding’s campaign of “stability” following the Great War, any discussion of the Treaty of Versailles is mostly non-existent.

My other complaint has less to do with the book and more to do with the subject.  Calvin Coolidge seems to be a vastly underrated president.  He stuck by his principles even when they were unpopular, was willing to take political risks, and the nation saw a great deal of economic growth and prosperity under his tenure in office.  He guided the nation through the fallout of the Harding scandals, and he seemed to be a decent enough father and husband.  But those details don’t always make for thrilling reading.  While it seems sacrilegious to complain about a decent guy who does a good job in office, compared to many of the other principle characters of the early twentieth century Coolidge is a bit boring.  He wasn’t scandalous like Harding, wasn’t an adventurer like Theodore Roosevelt, wasn’t the suspicious conniver like Woodrow Wilson.  He just did a good job, and while that can foster admiration, it doesn’t always make for an exciting story.

I came away from the book with a new respect for Calvin Coolidge, and the belief that he is often consistently underrated among presidents.  And Shlaes does him credit in seeking to understand the man, to the extent that anyone can understand a stoic individual like Coolidge.  But unless you are a lover of political biographies or an admirer of Calvin Coolidge, you may not find the man himself quite as fascinating as some of the other more colorful figures of his era.

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Killers of the Flower Moon: Monday Book Review

Killers of the Flower MoonLast week I received David Grann’s newest non-fiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon, as a gift from my wife for my birthday.  Grann is the author of The Lost City of Z, which itself is a fantastic book that was made into one of this year’s best films, starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.  I read The Lost City of Z a few years ago, and enjoyed Grann’s writing style and investigative work so much that when I heard about Killers of the Flower Moon, I was very anxious to read it.

I was not disappointed.  This was absolutely the best book I’ve read all year, and probably one of the most enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve read in the last 4-5 years.  Normally a book of this size and scope would take me a week or two to finish.  It’s not long, clocking in at about 300 pages, and it is extremely readable.  But with a full time job, as well as writing for Washington University and my own blog, it takes me longer than it used too to read a book.  This time, however, I finished the book in three days.  It was so engrossing that I simply couldn’t put it down.

The book covers the murder of many prominent members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma during the 1920’s.  At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of oil on the Osage reservation had made the Osage an incredibly wealthy people, with oilmen bidding huge sums for the right to drill on the reservation.  Grann details this turn of events and the ways in which it both blessed and cursed the tribe, as well as the ways in which the government (and by extension, many white merchants in the territory) took advantage of the Osage and exploited them in horrific ways.  All of this acts as a backdrop to the murders, in which several of the wealthy Osage landowners were shot or poisoned.  The ensuing investigation and the principle parties involved are all described in great detail by Grann, who has done painstaking work to bring these characters out of the annals of history in a vivid way.

Eventually the FBI was called in, and as a fledgling department (it hadn’t even come to be known as the FBI yet), they were looking for a case to boost their profile and their work, Tom Whiteand saw such  a chance in the Osage Reign of Terror.  The lead investigator on the case, Tom White, is a sympathetic character, and Grann does a good job of exploring his motivations and the work that he did to bring the killers to justice.  The first two-thirds of the book covers the investigation and subsequent trial of those convicted, and the final third covers Grann’s own investigation, to pursue gaps in the FBI’s case and questions that still remained.  He finds evidence that the conspiracy against the Osage went much deeper than the FBI was able to uncover, and that it is likely several of the people involved went unpunished.

The book was wonderful in several ways.  As someone who had no knowledge of this incident in history, it read like a “who-dun-it” that kept me on the edge of my seat until the identity of the killers were revealed.  The historical context of the case, the Osage tribes oil wealth and the history of the FBI in Oklahoma, were also fascinating details I knew little about, so I learned much while reading.  Most of all, Grann does a marvelous job at being a voice to a forgotten past.  The Osage Reign of Terror still deeply affects the Osage tribe today, and Grann does a wonderful thing here by allowing the voices of these forgotten victims to speak from beyond the grave.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  If you are a fan of history, of true crime, or of mystery, you will find much to satisfy you with this book.  And bonus, the rights to the book have already been sold, and Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are teaming up to bring the book to the big screen.

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The World Remade: Monday Book Review

A World RemadeGoing forward, I intend on issuing a book review every Monday (or every other Monday, depending on how this goes).  I read a lot of history books throughout the year, and since I assume most people reading this blog may share somewhat of an interest in history, I thought I’d let you know what I’ve been reading in case you are looking for something to add to your book shelf.

One of the latest books I just finished was a title called The World Remade: America in World War I by popular historian G.J. Meyer.  I had previously read Meyer’s book, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.  Meyer is not an academic historian, which is probably a benefit if you are looking for a more readable account of World War 1, as his style is much more narrative and easy to digest.  A World Undone is one of the better comprehensive histories of World War 1 that I have found, and I highly recommend it.  He gives a brief background history on a variety of subjects in between each chapter, which provides anecdotal context for the participants of the war, and this added a real flavor I don’t think some other books about the war provide.

While A World Undone is a comprehensive look at the war, The World Remade focuses on America’s involvement, both in the buildup to our entry into the war, then our participation in it, and finally, our role in the aftermath of the war.  For those looking for a military history of America in the Great War, there are better books out there.  American contributions militarily are only a small portion of what the book covers, and while Meyer does a decent enough job explaining this, it is not done in detail.  If, however, you have wondered why America became involved in World War 1, and what the impact of our involvement was on the international scene, then Meyer’s book is well worth your time.  Most of the book covers this question, dealing with the social, economic and political reasons why America got involved in the war, and how our joining it affected all the nations involved.

Meyer holds a significant amount of historical bias.  If you are a fan of Woodrow Wilson, Woodrow Wilsonthen you probably won’t find much comfort in what he writes, because it is clear that Meyer does not hold a favorable view of Wilson’s presidency.  He spends a great deal of time discussing not just Wilson’s policy making, but also Wilson the man, and it seems clear that Meyer is unimpressed with Wilson.  His view regarding Wilson’s pledged neutrality (Wilson ran his 1916 campaign on the idea that he had kept America out of the war) was that it was inconsistent from the start and that Wilson was a “master of self-deceit,” holding policy positions so uneven he couldn’t see himself that he was steering America towards inevitable entry into the conflict.  He also expresses the belief that Wilson was subtly maneuvered and manipulated into the war by the British and French, as well as his friend and unofficial adviser, Colonel Edward House.

In laying out the case for this, he does a good job of showing the very inconsistent and harshly anti-German foreign policy that the Wilson administration practiced.  He points out that America turned a blind eye to the British blockade of Germany, in effect allowing millions of people to starve.  At the same time, Wilson insisted that Americans had the right to safety on the seas, even if they were traveling in British or French vessels that were transporting war supplies, which crippled the German navy’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

He also spends a great deal of time pointing out the harsh attitude the Wilson administration took in violating the civil rights of thousands of its own citizens, culminating in the Espionage Act of 1917.  During this time the government persecuted citizens who spoke out against the war, imprisoning them, silencing their speech, and acting in a tyrannical and unconstitutional manner.  He discusses the administrations terrible record as well on the civil rights of minorities, and the terrible treatment of black citizens during this period.

The book ends with an extensive look at Wilson’s role in the peace process, and as with his other criticism’s, Meyer is harshly critical of Wilson’s decision making here as well.  By this time, he argues that Wilson had become so insular that he refused counsel from almost everyone, and that he was so committed to the idea of the League of Nations that he essentially caved to the British and French on every other point in order to preserve the League, devastating Germany in the process.  Had America been more steadfast in protesting some of the decisions made during this peace making period, it is possible that things may have been different in post-war Europe.

As someone who is not a devoted fan of Wilson, I loved the book.  While Meyer certainly presents a one-sided view of the American government during this time, and is much more sympathetic to the Germans than in his previous work, I thought many of his criticisms were fair and the evidence he submitted for his arguments was strong.  I would highly recommend the book to anyone looking to understand U.S. policy during this time period, or anyone wondering why we were involved in the war in the first place.  As I stated before, the book is not academic and is easy to read, and pulls no punches.  It’s well worth your time.

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Fake News!

Sir John HerschelOn August 25, 1835, a New York Sun headline blared the news of an exciting new discovery made by astronomers.  Supposedly a reprint from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, the first in a series of six articles described a find by legendary astronomer Sir John Herschel, who had set up a powerful telescope in Capetown, South Africa.  The discovery was being publicized by Herschel’s colleague, a Dr. Andrew Grant.  And what a story Grant had to tell:

“To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle, the younger Herschel…has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited…”

In layman’s terms, the article was suggesting that Herschel, by virtue of his magnificent new telescope, had found proof of life on the moon.  The initial article described the wondrous power of this amazing telescope, how it could see things that previous telescopes had been incapable of seeing, and this was how Herschel’s discoveries have been made.

And what were these discoveries?  The five subsequent articles detailed this amazing find. The first thing he saw, according to Dr. Grant, was “Papaver Rhoeas, or rose-poppy of our sublunary cornfields.” This was the first time man had ever set eyes on an organic life form that did not originate on earth.  Grant went on to detail a lush vegetation on the moon, including trees, plains, mountains, lakes, beaches, and everything you would hope to find on a distant planet.  And the animals were equally as wondrous:

“In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears. We could most distinctly perceive this hairy veil, which was shaped like the upper front outline of a cap known to the ladies as Mary Queen of Scots’ cap, lifted and lowered by means of the ears.”

And monsters, as well:

The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of horn and beard, but had a much longer tail.

The Sun article described many other things, just as extraordinary, including man-1835_sun_beaversbats,two legged beavers, and numerous kinds of water birds.  Pretty amazing, right?  I mean, one would expect to see unicorns (and a lot of other strange things) after a couple hours at a reggae concert, but who knew such things existed on the moon?  And given the descriptions of the planet (which also included massive crystal amethysts) we all should be booking tickets to the moon for our next summer vacay.

We know, of course, that none of this was true (or if it is, Neil Armstrong and the rest of NASA have a killer poker face).  In fact, the New York Sun was making the whole thing up in an effort to poke fun at some writers who had posited serious theories regarding extra-terrestrial life, particularly lunar life.  The general public, however, didn’t know this, and they ate it up.  It even fooled some Yale scientists.  It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that the Sun admitted that, in fact, the entire thing had been a fabrication.  The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication a few years prior, and there was no such person as Dr. Andrew Grant (Herschel was a real astronomer though).  The articles had been written by a Sun reporter. The Sun suffered no serious fall out from the incident, as many people just laughed it off.

It’s interesting to me, in retrospect, at how the whole thing was received.  People were pretty eager to accept everything the Sun was saying as legitimate, probably because it played upon the previous theories that the moon had billions of inhabitants.  People wanted it to be true, so they accepted uncritically the entire series at face value without questioning why no one else was reporting this. It’s similar to the current stream of little known websites “reporting” outlandish things that some people accept uncritically simply because it’s what they want to hear.  If the Great Moon Hoax should teach us anything, it should teach us to not accept something at face value just because it’s what we want to be true.


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Why Did the South Secede?

Abe Lincoln Jeff DavisOver the last week, there has been a lot of discussion here in the U.S. following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, over our nations history.  As someone who both has a degree in history and has read extensively about our past, it’s been a little troubling to see the degree to which history is misunderstood by so many people, both in terms of facts and context.  I thought I’d devote a post to discussing the root cause of the Civil War (I may add some additional articles later).

The ongoing argument I’ve seen, both on social media and among some columnists and talking heads, is that the Civil War was never really about slavery at all, but rather about “states rights.”  This is an old argument that I’ve read many times before, and each time debate around statues and Confederate flags gets resurrected, this argument inevitably follows.  I’ve seen numerous discussions regarding what this means, but generally the reasoning goes that Lincoln was a proponent of protectionist tariffs and wanted to tax the living daylights out of foreign imports.  Given that the South was an agrarian society with little manufacturing, and therefore relied heavily on imported goods, this would naturally be economically detrimental to them.  The North, being a heavily industrialized economy, would stand to gain since their products would be cheaper and therefore more Americans would use them.  So once Lincoln was elected, the South seceded on the grounds that they had a constitutional right to do so.

The problem with this theory is that it ignores multiple factors.  It ignores the inflamed tensions between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  It ignores the controversial nature of the Supreme Courts Dred Scott decision.  It ignores the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, which weren’t about tariffs at all but discussed slavery at length.  Most of all, it ignores the South’s own words as to why they chose to secede.  Like most monumental political events in history, we don’t have to rely on guess work to understand the reasons behind secession.  We can look to what the politicians said, what the articles of secession said, at what was written and spoken at the time.  In the case of Southern secession, the case is clear.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the first state to secede was South Carolina.  They issued Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, in which they quoted at length the Declaration of Independence in an effort to make the case that South Carolina was a “free and independent state”, and it was as such that they entered into a contract with the other states in signing the Constitution.  (Conveniently, they left out the part of the Declaration where it states all men are created equal.)

Their argument was that a binding contract is only binding as long as both parties uphold their end of the bargain, and in South Carolina’s view, the other states had failed to uphold their end of the bargain.  Exhibit A?  That the Constitution had guaranteed that escaped slaves who fled to non-slave holding states would be returned to their owners.  According to South Carolina: “…an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slave holding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” They complained about the North being unwilling to enforce this provision in the Constitution or the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  “In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. “

From their declaration of Secession:

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

They don’t mention tariffs, or Republican economics.  They don’t mention states rights Am I not a man and a brotheroutside of their right to own slaves and their right to force non-slave holding states to return them if they should escape.

Other states followed suit.  Georgia seceded in January of 1861, and published their own articles of secession.  Their opening lines read:

“The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

Mississippi also seceded in January of 1861.  Their A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union states that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”  Texas argued that they joined the Union under the assumption slavery would exist forever, and stated:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

220px-Alexander_StephensFurthermore, slavery was not just the motivating factor behind the secession of individual states.  It was literally the bedrock of the formation of the Confederacy.  The new vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, arose on March 21, 1861 at the Athenaeum in Savannah, Georgia, and left no doubt about the foundations upon which this new government was being established.  First, he singled out Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers:

“The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.”

Stephens argued that the U.S. was founded by men who assumed that slavery was wrong, that it would only be a temporary institution that would eventually be done away with. He stated that “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.”  This, he stated, was not the assumption that would be made by those forming the Confederacy. Instead:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. “

It is hard to argue, in retrospect, that the Confederacy was built upon anything regarding states rights, other than the right to protect the institution of slavery.  The narrative that has arisen in the post-Civil War era that slavery was not the sole issue upon which southern secession and the war was based arose from southern revisionist historians seeking to justify their “Lost Cause.”  The inescapable truth is that the South seceded solely over the issue of slavery.  They formed their new government upon what they perceived to be the fundamental principle of racial inequality.  The ugliness of those words is etched eternally, and no amount of argumentation will refute the justifications they themselves offered for what they did.

If you have an interest in further reading over this issue, I recommend this debate between Thomas DiLorenzo and the late Harry Jaffa.  I own both the books referenced in the transcript, and they are worth looking at if you are interested in a much more detailed version of their arguments.  (I will warn you that Jaffa’s book, in particular, is heavily academic and not an easy read.)  You can also watch the debate here.


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The Misunderstood Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia 2There are few women in the Italian Renaissance more intriguing and more analyzed than Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI.  She has been a controversial character for centuries, not only being written about by scholars and historians, but also becoming the subject of novels, operas, and films.  Many portraits of her character are unflattering, but through the years she has undergone an evolution of sorts, and the common understanding of her has become much more sympathetic, not only from scholars but also from popular culture. In order to come to a more complete understanding of Lucrezia, one must categorize what has been written about her, what changes her character has undergone, and what she means to popular culture today.  In analyzing her in this fashion, it is possible for one to come to a better understanding of her as a historical figure.

Lucrezia Borgia was born on April 18, 1480, the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei.  Rodrigo Borgia was a powerful figure in the Catholic Church, the nephew of Pope Calixtus III, and in 1492, he was elected Pope Alexander VI.  He unabashedly used his children as political pawns, marrying Lucrezia at the age of thirteen to Giovanni Sforza, nephew of the powerful Ludovico Sforza who was the ruler of Milan.  Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni only lasted three years, when Alexander and the Sforza family forced him to sign a pledge stating he had never consummated the marriage.  Lucrezia went to a convent to wait for the marriage to be annulled, and while there, she was found to be pregnant, most likely by a messenger of the Borgias by the name of Perotto.  Her marriage was annulled, she was announced to be a virgin while she was still with child, and after giving birth, she was married to Alfonso of Aragon, who was the son of the King of Naples.  They were married only a short time before her husband was murdered, most likely at the hands of her brother, Cesare Borgia.  After a brief period, her father arranged another marriage for her, this time to Alfonso d’Este, the son of Duke Ercole and brother to the acclaimed Isabella d’Este.  She remained married to Alfonso for the rest of her life, finally dying after giving birth to her eighth child in 1519.

Lucrezia Borgia was not treated kindly by many writers of her day, primarily because of who her father and brother were.  Of the charges laid against her, many are spurious and were made without any evidence whatsoever, but they have been repeated both in a historical and cultural context so often that they have stuck, even growing immeasurably throughout the years.  Of the most heinous, it was said that she had an incestuous relationship with both her father and her brother, that she was immoral, and that she was a master of poison.  There is no real evidence to support any of these claims, but they have been made many times over in historical works, plays, and novels.  To understand the growth of the Lucrezia Borgia mythology, one must examine the chronology of works about her and how she has been represented in them, to come to a complete understanding of how and why we view Lucrezia Borgia in the way we do today.

Much of what we know of her life, particularly from the time that her father became pope, comes to us from several sources, the primary one being the Vatican scribe Johann Burchard.  Burchard was a German who acted as Master of Ceremonies under five different popes, including Alexander VI.  His diary, entitled the Liber Notarum, is widely considered by many historians to be a mostly accurate description of events that occurred during the reign of the Borgia pope.  However, there are still times Burchard must be looked at in a critical eye.  Borgia scholar Ivan Cloulas writes “Everything was noted painstakingly in this veritable ‘sacristan’s book,’ but between these descriptions Burckard maliciously sneaked in accounts of the excesses and scandals, the Vatican gossip, and the verses and pamphlets that inundated Rome under Alexander VI.”[1]  Cloulas recounts the increasing importance that Burchard’s journal took on in any work done on the Borgia’s, noting that by the late 1600’s, “…nothing could be written about the Borgia’s without reference to the ‘bible’ which Burckard’s day-to-day jottings had become.”[2]  Ferdinand Gregorovius, one of Lucrezia’s many biographers, writes of Burchard and Lucrezia:  “He must have called upon her frequently, but she could scarcely have foreseen that, centuries later, this Alastian’s notes would constitute the mirror in which posterity would see the reflections of the Borgias.  His diary, however, gives no details concerning Lucrezia’s private life—this did not come within his duties.”[3]  Suffice it to say that Burchard is probably the primary chronicler of events that happened during the Borgia reign.  Other chroniclers included Florentine author Francesco Gucciardini, who wrote The History of Italy and has an undoubted anti-Borgia bias, as well as Camillo Beneimbene, the legal advisor of Pope Alexander VI.  Letters, diaries, legal documents, and other records of the day comprise a vast collection of information with which historical facts regarding Lucrezia Borgia can be gleaned.  Given the controversial nature of the Borgia family and the apparent biases of many of their chroniclers, it is no wonder that many of the accounts of Lucrezia’s life have been tainted at times, and given that her brother and father both engaged in corrupt and immoral practices, it is also no surprise that some scholars have adopted an attitude of guilt by association.

Several early works were written about the Borgia’s in the century after their reign in the papacy ended, many of which were inspired by the Burchard journal and most of which recounted several of the salacious details within.  Such early authors include Paolo Giovio, Onofrio Panvinio, Geronimo Zurita, and Theodore Godefroy.  These all relied, to one extent or another, on the Burchard journal as a source of inspiration for their works.[4]  In 1696, a particularly sensational account of the Borgias was written by a scholar named Leibnitz, who published it under the title Specimen Historiae Arcanae, sive anecdotae de vita Alexandri VI Papae.  Lebinitz wrote “there has never been a court more contaminated with crime than that of Alexander VI, where shamelessness, treachery, and cruelty were the rule—three capital vices, all three crowned by villainy and covered with the sacred veil of religion.”[5]  Following this account was one written by British historian Alexander Gordon, who wrote Lives of Pope Alexander VI and His Son Cesare Borgia in 1729.  Of Lucretia he writes in the Preface “Lucretia, Alexander’s daughter…as famous for Lewdness, as the Roman Lucretia for Chastity.”[6]  Although he certainly personifies the anti-Borgia attitude of writings during that time, he did document his sources and his book is called by Cloulas “…the first example of a documented study on the Borgias.”[7]

Following the Gordon book, a number of other scholars wrote works regarding the Lucrezia BorgiaBorgia family.  Continuing in the vein of the works that followed before them, they were far from unbiased.  “If these writers aimed at objectivity in regard to their sources, their story was always told anything but dispassionately.  In that philosopher’s age, each one was intent on denouncing the Borgia’s crimes and their scorn for public and private morality.”[8]  One of these chroniclers was noted French writer Voltaire, who in his 1756 work Essai sur les moeurs, questions the charges of poison against the Borgias, but “repeats the accusations of incest against Lucrezia as well as Cesare’s crimes.”[9]  This accusation, mentioned in almost every account of Lucrezia Borgia’s life, does not seem to have any evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to support it, but it is not uncommon that it should be repeated by even such a famous author as Voltaire.

But perhaps one of the most influential works in shaping the legend of Lucrezia as a corrupt and evil woman was introduced by another noted French author, Victor Hugo.  In his 1833 play Lucrece Borgia, he wrote, “Who, actually, is this Lucrezia Borgia?  Take the most hideous, the most repulsive, the most complete moral deformity; place it where it fits best—in the heart of a woman whose physical beauty and royal grandeur will make the crime stand out all the more strikingly…”[10]  Hugo, perhaps as much as any other author, is responsible for promoting Lucrezia to heights of villainy which no evidence shows that she deserved.  Hugo made clear where his inspiration came from.  “The author will remain silent in the face of criticism…He could, no doubt, answer more than one objection….To those who reproach him for exaggerating Lucrezia Borgia’s crimes he will say, ‘Go and read Tomasi, read Guicciardini and, above all, read the Diarium.’”[11]  The play depicts Lucrezia as a murderous villain who accidentally even poisons her own son.  Lucrezia waxes eloquent in the play on her ability as a poisoner.  “A dreadful poison, a poison, the very thought of which makes every Italian grow pale—everyone who knows the history of these last twenty years.  And no one in the world knows the antidote to this terrible concoction, no one save the pope, the duke of Valentinois and myself.”[12] Maria Bellonci, in her biography of Lucrezia, notes Hugo’s role in bestowing the reputation of poisoner upon Lucrezia. “This was the epoch of the famous Borgia poison which was for centuries to be synonymous with the family name, and with which even Lucrezia’s name was to be associated—the dark imagination of the Romantics, and especially Victor Hugo, turning her into a poisoner and evil genius.”[13]  Hugo’s play was adapted into an opera by Gaetano Donizetti and was first performed in December of 1833.  The opera has been performed in famous concert halls around the world and helped to perpetuate the myth of Lucrezia as villain.

Other noted authors took up their pens to write of the crimes of the Borgia’s, lumping Lucrezia in with her brother and father.  Alexandre Dumas, celebrated author of works such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote of the Borgia family in his popular series Les crimes celebres, published in the same decade as Hugo’s work.  Of Lucrezia, he intimates that her relationship with her brother Cesare was incestuous, calling her “the mistress of his illicit affection.”[14]  Of Lucrezia, Rodrigo, and Cesare, he states that “…the three composed that diabolical trio which for eleven years occupied the pontifical throne, like a mocking parody of the Holy Trinity.”[15]  Noted historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, stated of the Borgia family “Those who were not slain by the Borgias’ dagger perished by their poison.”[16]

In the mid to late 1800’s, the Borgia reputation finally received somewhat of a defense.  First came authors who felt the need to swing in the opposite direction, among them Abbe Ollivier and Father Leonetti, who attempted to deny everything that had been written about the Borgia name.[17]  They sought to clear the Borgias of all charges.  This sparked an interest in a “documentary rediscovery of the Borgia story.”[18]  Guiseppe Campori released a study on Lucrezia in 1866 entitled Una vittima della Storia, based on documents taken from the Este family archives in Modena.  This was followed by German scholar Ferdinand Gregorovius’ work in 1874 on the life of Lucrezia Borgia, which “set a date for the scientific approach to the history of the Borgia’s.”[19]  Gregorovius’s work sought to examine Lucrezia in a historical light, and represented her much more kindly than most previous works had done.  In his final remarks, he states “The original sources from which the material for this book has been derived would place the reader in a position to form his own opinion regarding Lucrezia Borgia, and his view would approximate the correct one, or at least would be nearer correct than the common conception of this woman.”[20]  He certainly is not always kind, calling her “weak and characterless” and stating that she did not possess great qualities.[21]  But he deviated from most of the previous Lucrezia biographers in his attempt to portray her not as an evil genius or a corrupt and wanton woman, but rather he makes clear “We are endeavouring to represent her only as she actually was…a woman differentiated from the great mass of women, not by the strength, but by the graciousness, of her nature.”[22]  Gregorovius may not have been completely kind to the image of Lucrezia, but he separated himself from other biographers by attempting to portray her as she was.

Lucrezia Borgia Maria BellonciSeveral more works on the Borgia family followed, and in the twentieth century several authors dedicated themselves to trying to use psychology to analyze the Borgias.  Authors such as Louis Gastine, who wrote a historical novel on Lucrezia, and Milanese physician Giuseppe Portigliotti, who wrote a psychiatric analysis of the Borgia family, followed this approach.[23]  Then in 1939, Lucrezia found another biographer willing to champion her cause and in some measure, rehabilitate her image, in the form of Italian author Maria Bellonci.  Bellonci published a biography of Lucrezia, defending her against many of the charges that had been laid against her.  Bellonci’s work is perhaps one of the most important biographies in terms of rehabilitating the image of Lucrezia Borgia.  Gregorovius may be responsible for establishing a method for analyzing Lucrezia in a more historical light, but Bellonci is perhaps more influential in allowing students of history to rethink the Lucrezia mythos.  She offers explanations for the charges against Lucrezia concerning poison, incest, and the other accusations that she has so often faced.  Further, she represents her as a lady of intelligence and also somewhat of a tragic figure who was subject to misfortune and grief in her life.

Following Bellonci’s work, many other authors and even filmmakers have come to regard Lucrezia Borgia in a new light, although the idea of her as a villain still exists in much of popular culture.  The Abel Gance directed French film Lucrezia Borgia, released in 1935, represents Lucrezia in the much more sympathetic light of Bellonci and Gregorovius.  Both it and the 1953 French film Lucrece Borgia are much more famous for their all nude bath scenes of Lucrezia  than they are for any real groundbreaking work on the character herself, however.  Following the Bellonci book, most biographies and non-fiction works on Lucrezia seem to take much the same view as Bellonci on the famous daughter of Pope Alexander.  Rachel Erlanger, in 1978, published a somewhat sympathetic look at the life of Lucrezia Borgia.  In it, she postulates, like others before her, that the incest rumors were the result of Giovanni Sforza and his anger at being forced to declare that he had failed to consummate his marriage.[24]  She presents Lucrezia as merely a pawn of her fathers, saying of her first marriage, “…the experience would leave her with a realization of how little voice she had in her own destiny.”[25]  She also defends Lucrezia against the charges of poison, saying of accusations that Lucrezia kept a poison ring, “…the only so called poisoned rings which have come to light belong to a much later period.  So much for the poison of the Borgias.”[26]  Erlanger’s work is followed by a comprehensive look at the Borgia family by French author Ivan Cloulas, who published in 1989 his book, The Borgias, in which he attempts to tackle the Borgia mythos in a historical light, commenting in the prologue that “This caricature is the result of centuries of hostile writings.”[27]  He also treats Lucrezia in a much kinder light than her earlier biographers did.

The twenty first century has seen, in some respects, Lucrezia come full circle.  One of the most recent biographers, Sarah Bradford, published her work on Lucrezia Borgia in 2004, and she again follows the vein of most modern historians in presenting Lucrezia as a somewhat sympathetic figure who was a pawn of her father and brother.  She explains the incest as probably being due to the accusations of Giovanni Sforza, and believed because of the closeness of the Borgia family.[28]  Renaissance historian Christopher Hibbert, in 2008, released another comprehensive look at Borgia family and the conflicts they faced during their rise to power, entitled The Borgias and Their Enemies.  In it, he also defends Lucrezia against the charge of incest, attributing it to Giovanni Sforza, stating “The rumours of incest, a sin as offensive then as it is now, spread like wildfire through Rome and all of Italy.  Born out of Giovanni’s desire for revenge on the family who were taunting him so unfairly, the story stuck.”[29]  While he does not hold back from shedding further light on the crimes of Cesare and Alexander VI, Hibbert again treats Lucrezia as merely a puppet of their own power struggles.

However, contemporary popular culture sources have not always been so kind to Lucrezia.  The author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo, wrote The Family in 2001, a fictional retelling of the Borgia mythos, in which the Pope not only sanctions but actually observes Lucrezia and Cesare consummating an incestuous relationship in order to maintain control over the loyalty of his family.[30]  Celebrated author Gregory Maguire placed Lucrezia in the role of antagonist in his 2003 work, Mirror, Mirror, which is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.  In it, Lucrezia Borgia resumes the popular role of an incestuous poisoner.  She is angered at the protagonist, Bianca, because her brother Cesare is attracted to her; “Her own brother, the tenderest swift soldier ever to enter her bed—groping at a child.”[31]  Later, Lucrezia ponders the long history of poison in her family.  “So she fell back, at last, to the tradition perfected by her ancestors.  What a library of recipes they’d amassed—poisons that had killed cardinals and princes, dukes and their wives, inconvenient lovers overstaying their welcome.”[32] Other contemporary sources feature a different take, one much more in the Bellonci-Gregorovius mold.  Roberta Gellis’s 2003 work Lucrezia Borgia and the Mother of Poisons features Lucrezia in a sort of Renaissance Italian “who-done-it” murder mystery, where Lucrezia is forced to investigate someone else’s death by poisoning in order to defend her reputation.  In 2006, a Spanish language film entitled Los Borgia, directed by Antonio Hernandez, was released and also portrays Lucrezia in a kinder light, showing her again to be a pawn of her father and brother.

So in the future, what can we expect of the Lucrezia Borgia mythos?  It is unlikely that any new documentation will turn up exposing Lucrezia to be the poisoner and embodiment of evil that she is in legend, so future biographers will likely continue to follow in the Gregorovius and Bellonci form, since this seems to be the most likely interpretation of the character of Lucrezia Borgia.  In terms of popular culture, new works seem to have flourished depicting Lucrezia in this more sympathetic light, and this trend is likely to continue.  The latest screen depiction, Showtime’s series The Borgia’s, cast Lucrezia in a empathetic and not completely unfavorable light.   However, the idea of Lucrezia as evil villainess is too delicious for many writers to ignore, so it is unlikely that the Lucrezia of legend will completely go away, either.

So what can the body of work done on Lucrezia Borgia tell us regarding her character?  In her book, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, author Merry Wiesner-Hanks dedicates a chapter to talking about the subject of gender and power.  In it, she discusses Niccolo Machiavelli’s work, The Prince, in which he praises the actions of Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia’s older brother.  Says Wiesner-Hanks, “For Machiavelli, effective rulers—and effective men—had the ability to shape the world around them according to their will and used whatever means necessary to preserve order and security.”[33]  This is telling when taken in context with the vast body of scholarly work done on the Borgia family, because it seems evident, particularly in the works of authors such as Ferdinand Gregorovius, Maria Bellonci, and Rachel Erlanger, that Lucrezia was subject not to her own will, but rather to the will of her father and brother, who sought to use her as a pawn in their attempt to shape the world around them.  Early works about Lucrezia generally put her in the position of a woman using any means possible to control her world, but through the scholarly efforts of historians, the common understanding of Lucrezia today is that she was not the Lucrezia of legend, but rather a woman who was used by her family in the great power struggles of fifteenth century Italy.



Bellonci, Maria.  The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia.  Tr. Bernard and Barbara Wall.  New York:  Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953.


Bradford, Sarah.  Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2004.


Cloulas, Ivan.  The Borgias.  Tr. Gilda Roberts.  New York:  Franklin Watts, 1989.


Dumas, Alexandre.  The Crimes of the Borgias.  Lexington:, 2009.


Erlanger, Rachel.  Lucrezia Borgia. New York:  Hawthorn Books, 1978.


Gregorovius, Ferdinand.  Lucrezia Borgia:  A Chapter from the Morals of the Italian Renaissance.  New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1948.


Hibbert, Christopher.  The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519.  Orlando:  Harcourt, Inc., 2008.


Maguire, Gregory.  Mirror, Mirror.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2003.


Puzo, Mario.  The Family.  New York: Harper Collins, 2001.


Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E.  Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[1] Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 334

[2] Ibid., p.335

[3] Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 81-82

[4] Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 334-334

[5] Ibid., p. 335

[6] Ibid., p. 336

[7] Ibid., p. 337

[8] Ibid., p. 337

[9] Ibid., p. 337

[10] Ibid., p. 339-340

[11] Ibid., p. 340

[12] Ibid., p. 340

[13] Bellonci, The Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, p. 217

[14] Dumas, The Crimes of the Borgias, p.71

[15] Ibid., p. 27

[16] Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 340

[17] Ibid., p. 341

[18] Ibid., p. 341

[19] Ibid., p. 341

[20] Gregorovius, Lucrezia Borgia, p.231

[21] Ibid., p. 96

[22] Ibid., p. 96

[23] Cloulas, The Borgias, p. 342-343

[24] Erlanger, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 100

[25] Ibid., p. 104

[26] Ibid., p. 228

[27] Cloulas, The Borgias, p. vii

[28] Bradford, Lucrezia Borgia, p. 67

[29] Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies, p. 113

[30] Puzo, The Family, p. 46-47

[31] Maguire, Mirror, Mirror, p. 121

[32] Ibid., p. 236

[33] Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, p. 293

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